New Year's Trees: They're Like Christmas Trees But Russian
A festively decorated tree in Moscow. (Photo by Vladimir Smirnov\TASS via Getty Images)
Toys. Lights. Family and friends gathered around a stunningly decorated evergreen tree. This might sound like a familiar Christmas scene---after all, that's how Christmas is celebrated in the West---but in Russia, family and friends gather around the tree on New Year's Eve. It's not because they've kept their Christmas trees up later than would otherwise be considered socially acceptable; a major part of the Russian New Year's Eve celebration is the yolka, or New Year's tree. Let's look at how the Russian Revolution killed the Christmas tree and gave rise to the yolka.
A German Christmas tree, lit with candles. (countryskillsblog.com)
The Origin Of The Christmas Tree
People in antiquity were fascinated by evergreen trees and shrubs well before the rise of Christianity. Since other trees shed their leaves in the fall and appeared to die over the winter to be reborn in the spring, trees that remained green throughout winter, they surmised, must have special properties. The Romans, Celts, Egyptians, Vikings, and Greeks all revered evergreens.
In the 16th century, after Christianity swept across Europe and Christian beliefs replaced pagan ones, Germans started to celebrate their faith by bringing evergreen trees into their homes, adding candles and ornaments because God demands decor. Soon, people across Europe and in the Americas erected Christmas trees, following the German tradition.
The tradition of Christmas trees spread to Russia from Germany. (pinterest.com)
The Russians Once Had Christmas Trees
The German Christmas tree tradition spread east, too; Russia enjoyed Christmas trees for several centuries. Just like German Christmas trees, the trees that Russians put up in the wintertime were evergreens festooned with garland and candles. The trees were a welcome sight in the barren, brutal winters.
German Christmas trees were outlawed ever since the Russian Revolution of 1917. (robertgraham.wordpress.com)
The Russian Revolution
During World War I, Germany and Russia were on opposing sides, so Russia embarked upon a campaign to eliminate all parts of their culture that were inspired or influenced by Germany. They couldn't quite stamp out Christmas trees, however, until the Russian Revolution of 1917. To many Russians, the Christmas tree became a symbol of the bourgeois state. After the ousting of the royal family, Russia joined with other regions in the area to form the Soviet Union, a communist nation that outlawed religion, sounding the Christmas tree's final death knell in Russia.
The Christmas tree was rebranded as a yolka, or New Year's tree. (worldchallenge.org)
The Christmas Tree Was A Religious Symbol
As a symbol of Christianity, the Christmas tree was banned in the new Soviet Union. Still, the Russian people had fond memories of their Christmas trees, and they weren't entirely ready to give them up. Within a few years, a high-ranking member of the Bolsheviks publicly asked "Why would we deprive those children who had never had a Christmas tree of their own of the pleasure of the tree?" It was clear that the Russian people would need to rebrand indoor arboriculture.
A yolka is an evergreen tree that is central to the Russian New Year's Eve celebrations. (newsweek.com)
The New Year's Tree
The celebration of the once-Christian tree was moved from December 25 to December 31 and the tree itself labeled a New Year's tree, or yolka. The tree even got a Soviet-style makeover, with a Kremlin star on the top. The Soviet government encouraged people to gather around the tree as a way to honor their Soviet heritage on the cusp of the new year, a plan that worked so well that many young adults in Russia today have no idea that their yolka is a secular version of the Christmas tree.
As this Soviet postcard shows, the yolka tree was topped with a Kremlin star. (npr.org)
Yolka Trees Around the World
Today, yolka trees are not just a Russian symbol. People celebrate the coming of the new year with yolka trees in Turkey, China, Vietnam, and many of the countries that were once part of the Soviet Union. Still, although they may look like the Christmas trees of western culture, yolka trees are distinctly Russian. They are a symbol of the Soviet regime and their desire to create a secular celebration from a popular Christian tradition.